A lot has changed since Huawei first introduced the world to the Ascend P1 smartphone, the first in the range of smartphones leading to the latest flagship, the Huawei P9. Going back just two years to the Ascend P7 and you’ll realise just how much progress Huawei has made in terms of quality, in terms of the design, build quality, hardware and software. What was once seen as the iPhone copycat, has changed so drastically that, in some aspects, has become a world leader.
The Huawei P9 has also taken a few giant leaps forward in terms of smartphone cameras. While many OEMs have spent copious amounts of time and money within their R&D departments to reduce costs and increase capabilities of their cameras, it wasn’t until the release of Nokia’s 808 PureView, and a year later the Nokia Lumia 1020, that companies started pushing their mobile cameras to the next level in order to stay alive within the market. With Huawei’s recent partnership with Leica, many consumers eagerly awaited what the company would produce with its first smartphone to sport the newly improved cameras.
Build and Design
While the Apple iPhone remains relatively true to its design over the years, many Android phones have ditched some of their classic looks for something more modernised, a bit more premium, and a lot more metallic. The Huawei P9 isn’t too dissimilar from the previously released P8 with its unibody metal chassis and flat sides, but it looks sharper, and feels better in hand. There are a few standout features over the P8 that sets the P9 apart. For starters, the rear now includes the fingerprint scanner we found on the rear of Mate S and Mate 8 devices. While many other Android OEMs use this space for their protruding rear cameras, Huawei has successfully changed the notion of needing the scanner on the main menu button or power buttons. In fact, it feels a lot easier to unlock as your fingers are in a more natural position. And the scanner works really well. Unlike some instances where you’d often have to rescan your finger with a few additional attempts, the P9‘s level 4 sensor worked flawlessly, without exaggeration, even at times on the angle, and with a few upside down tests.
Then there’s the addition of the USB3.1 type C port. This latest USB standard has not been as predominant as it should have been since its release, but I’m glad Huawei has included the port on the P9. While I don’t often copy files directly via the USB cable, since I frequently make use of the cloud options, using the type C port improved copying time quite dramatically. Unfortunately, on the other side of the coin, the microSD port doesn’t make use of some of the latest technology, and doesn’t include the Adoptable Storage option now available on Marshmallow. Adoptable Storage may still take some time in getting used to, since it doesn’t make for good performance if the SD card is corrupt or slow in performance. It also isn’t easily swappable, as it forms part of the current device OS, as opposed to switching between many devices.
The P9 measures 6.95mm in thickness, making it slightly thicker than the P8, but when you consider the additional hardware specs on the P9, it’s not too much of a bother. While a side-by-side comparison is likely to be the only way to spot the differences between the two smartphones, the P9 is notably better. The designers haven’t done much in the year since the P8’s release, but they’ve taken what was good and improved upon it.
Screen and Display
When compared to many of the leading flagships on the market, the P9’s screen and display don’t really compete at the top end of the scale. The 5.2″ screen is reasonably sized, with an IPS LCD. The FHD 1080x1920px resolution is what lets the Huawei P9 down, with only 423ppi pixel density. This is quite below par from other flagships, which often boast pixel density above 500ppi. While the resolution may be down in comparison, it isn’t horrible by any means and won’t cause any issues on your daily driver. The debate still rages on about the human eye being able to perceive much more than 300ppi on 5″ devices, with others claiming still being able to spot the difference above the 500ppi mark. Irrespective, the 1080p resolution with its 423ppi was good enough without having to worry about pixelation when viewing high-res images and video.
On its own the screen holds up when viewing most content without many or any issues at all. The same, however, cannot be said about the touchscreen quality. Under normal usage, I found that using the touchscreen had no issues and one wouldn’t find anything untoward. When playing through a few games, I picked up a trend whenever multitouch was required, especially when it is repeated at length. Often it wouldn’t pick up the second point/finger on the screen, meaning that whatever I was controlling at the time, in-game, wouldn’t move as required. After a few additional tests outside of the game environments, the pattern still reared its head.
On the other hand, the LCD technology created deep blacks and vivid colours. The image quality in this sense looked good. Users are able to adjust the brightness, contrast, and colour depth to their needs, but the default settings were good.
Performance and Battery Life
Huawei is not lacking in the performance aspects with the P9. It’s new HiSilicon Kirin 955 chipset with its Octo core processor split into Quad-core 2.5GHz Cortex-A72 and Quad-core 1.8 GHz Cortex-A53. This is backed up with 3GB RAM, the norm for many premium smartphones in 2016. The performance is smooth and load times are minimal. All aspects related to the processor passed with general ease.
Things turn a little when it comes to battery life. The 3000mAh battery would seem sufficient to last well into the second day, but doesn’t quite get there. While it does make it through a day without having to worry, the slight overheating when running intensive apps takes it toll on the battery life. When comparing battery stats across the different devices, you’ll find that the Huawei P9 falls short of other leading smartphones this year, such as the HTC 10 and LG G5, and even further behind the Galaxy S7. Still, this isn’t a cause for concern, and you’re still able to use the device without too much worry.
Now onto the main event, the Huawei P9‘s dual camera. With its partnership with Leica in 2015, the P9 marks the first device to sport a camera since the deal was penned. The dual camera feature may seem gimmicky, with one sensor to capture great colours, whereas the second, black and white sensor to capture up to 300% more light than other leading smartphone sensors. While Leica, which has its own range of premium cameras, were heavily involved in the development of hardware and software behind the scenes, both cameras have a 12MP Sony IMX286 sensor. This is, additionally, paired with an LED flash and hybrid autofocus.
Specs aside, we all wanted to know whether all the tricks and gimmicks lead to any great improvements over the standard cameras we find fitted to most other premium smartphones. The short answer, yes. From the get-go, using the default settings, there was something different about each of the photos I took, which only made me want to explore other features and effects. I enjoyed the option to change focus on each of the images (using a specific camera setting). This, the Bokeh Effect, where the camera creates different scenes from out of focus areas to highlight in-focus subjects, is said to be the first smartphone to offer this professional shot of this nature.
I spent a lot more time taking close-up photos of subject matter, black and white photos, and even sunset and low light photos, not just for the sake of it, but because they just looked brilliant. Pointing and shooting almost any photo in almost all lighting conditions makes everything so much easier. While many claim that their cameras are able to take perfect snaps for moving objects and the likes, it sometimes depends on the settings and camera modes you’re in. On the Huawei P9, I accidentally stumbled upon feature. In fact, I took the photo so quickly, it didn’t show up on the screen when I took it, but, to my surprise, what I found in the Gallery was a perfectly timed image. Even more impressive was the fact that this happened with a setting, winter sun halfway below the horizon, all the while still maintaining full focus.
There’s a lot to love about the Leica-powered, dual camera, but it isn’t perfect. For normal, day to day photos, you’re all set. But for something a lot more professional, there are times when you’ll notice slight change in colour effect, or even some image blur or out of focus areas you didn’t intend for. I will add, that this is mostly down to the camera software rather than poorly designed hardware, so a quick update to address this issue shouldn’t be too far off. Yes, many of the camera’s gimmicks rely heavily on specific software enhancements, but sometimes users just need a straightforward photo without the frills. The camera also falls short in other areas when compared to standard smartphone snappers, such as the pixel count and aperture size. While this may bring in a more scientific and professional debate, I’d much rather prefer the way Huawei’s dual camera is setup in comparison. And since I’m not a professional photographer, by any means, this works just fine for me.
There’s a lot to take in with the Huawei P9, and many more debates to be had. In my opinion, the P9 doesn’t do a whole lot more than it’s previously major releases in the form of the Mate 8, Mate S and even the P8. Still, without having the Leica-inspired, dual camera fitted to the rear, you’re left with a decent smartphone, although not sufficient argument to upgrade over any of the previously mentioned Huawei smartphones. That said, it does have the new camera tech, and it does make for quite a marked improvement on how users experience photography on their smartphones, even taking more black and white photos. And this, ultimately, is the deciding factor. If a camera on a smartphone is so good it has me talking about it, then I think it worth a second look.
At an RRP of R11,699 the Huawei P9 is quite a saving over its closest rivals in the form of the iPhone 6s and Samsung Galaxy S7. While each has their merits, my money’s on the P9 halfway through 2016.